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Healthier packed lunches

Published September 19. 2012 05:02PM

If you have a child in grade school, you've likely noticed school lunches are a bit different this year: More fruits and vegetables, less fat, and more whole grains. These changes were made in response to the USDA's new School Lunch Program guidelines, which are meant to ensure students nationwide receive healthier lunches.

But what if your student is a picky eater, and doesn't eat the lunch offered at school each day?

It's time to get creative and overhaul your child's packed lunch.

Understanding the guidelines

Changes to the School Lunch Program were made to reflect the USDA's food guide pyramid, now called "My Plate." Understanding "My Plate" is a great start for any parent looking to improve their family's healthy eating habits.

In "My Plate," plates are broken into fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy, visually emphasizing that each food group plays an important role in most meals.

"It comes down to following the dietary guidelines and understanding how to choose foods wisely," said Corrine Kanetski, a registered dietitian with Blue Mountain Health System. "It's a skill that should be developed very early on. It should start in the home, which is why it's so important to educate parents as well."

Don't worry if the guidelines are somewhat different from your family's average meal. For example, if you're not eating whole grain products now, introduce them slowly and work up to serving half of your grains as whole grains.

"A lot of kids are often surprised that they do like foods like whole grains. It's a chance for them to try it," she added.

Get the kidsinvolved

What's the best way to ensure that your child eats his or her packed lunch? Let him choose the foods!

"Meals should be a family event. Bring kids to the grocery store and have them help you choose the foods," said Kanetski. "Have them help you pack their lunch. Any time you make a child part of the process, you make it more likely that they will acquire this knowledge."

Encourage healthy finger foods like baby carrots, sliced celery or cherry tomatoes, which can be fun to pack and eat. Finger foods don't need dipping sauces, but dipping can make vegetables more fun; try hummus or salsa instead of traditional salad dressings.

If your family doesn't eat these foods now, start by introducing these foods at home so they're not a surprise come lunch-time.

For the main course, consider your child's current favorite meals.

"What would you feed them at home? You can often package up that stuff into little packages," she said. If your younger child enjoys sandwiches, and the school allows peanut products, "Peanut butter and jelly is a great sandwich. It's very packable in a lunch box," said Kanetski. The ever-popular PB&J, if made on whole grain bread, also offers a mix of whole grains and protein.

Portion control

It's not enough to include each food group for lunch it's also important to understand how much of each food group your child and family should consume.

"A main problem that we have in this country is called portion distortion. We have gotten used to larger than recommended portion sizes," said Kanetski. "At different stages of life, children need a different amount of calories. Teaching them the proper portion size shows them how much they should be eating."

For example, "My Plate" estimates that an 8-year-old girl should eat about 1,600 calories per day, including 1.5 cups of fruit each day, 2 cups of vegetables, and just 5 ounces of protein. (A stack of cards is about 3 ounces.) Your 12-year-old son might need significantly more calories and a bit more protein.

Go to to calculate each child's individual needs. While you're there, look for fun interactive games and coloring pages on the My Plate website to get your kids excited about packing their new, improved lunch.

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